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The power of Pininfarina | Inside the world's greatest design house

Pininfarina has designed some of the most beautiful cars ever made. More recently, it’s reinvented itself as a world-leading design studio in all things – from architecture to yachts. As the company turns 90, we meet its chairman, Paolo Pininfarina

Paolo Pininfarina

Its roof curves like wings in flight. The upright pillars have a tapering sensuousness to them, while the modular seating is more penthouse than sidewalk. The tempered glass frame supports an integrated solar power system that dapples coloured light on the people below. And this, for the City of Miami Beach, won last year’s prestigious Red Dot Award for Design Concept. It was designed by Pininfarina.

And it’s a bus shelter.

“People forget that everything has to be designed– this light, this pen, this car and yes, this bus shelter. OK, so it’s not a tower. It’s not a Ferrari,” concedes Paolo Pininfarina.

“But design is not all about glamour. It’s about finding that better way of making something work well. It was very much one of my father’s values that anything can be designed

well, that there’s always a better way of doing things if you only look for it. It’s also about business. There are 700 people working here, so we can’t be aristocratic about the work we do.”

All the same, one can’t imagine that Paolo Pininfarina takes the bus that often. Pininfarina is, after all, chairman of the eponymous automotive design company established in Cambiano, Italy, by his grandfather Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, and best known for its work with Lancia and Ferrari. While these greats of car manufacturing handled the engineering, it was Pininfarina - which marks its 90th anniversary this year – that provided the style.

Pininfarina was easy to understand – it stood for cars, excellence, luxury

It was, indeed, Pininfarina that was the coach-builder behind the Ferrari Dino 246 GTS and the Ferrari 275 GTB4 and most of Ferrari’s output since the 1980s. So close has the association become that Pininfarina was, for much of its more recent history, in Ferrari’s shadow.

It overlooks the fact that Pininfarina also gave us the likes of the Fiat 124 Spider Europa Volumex, 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Rondi, 1987 Cadillac Allante, BMW’s Gran Lusso Coupe and Maserati’s Quattroporte Sport GT – among the 600 cars or so it has designed, these are just a few of the brands that it’s allowed to mention. Some makers, it seems, worry rather that it might be the Pininfarina name that takes the glory for designs for which they’d rather take the credit.

“Of course, I’d never say no to working with Ferrari in the future. But times change,” says Paolo Pininfarina. “The fact was that in the past the match was good.”

“Pininfarina was easy to understand – it stood for cars, excellence, luxury. But I’ve also always wanted to develop the cachet it has into other areas. Cars will always be part of the business. And as cars become objects of desire – there will always be people who think of cars that way – then we’ll be part of providing that. But there’s a lot of other things to design, too.”

Indeed, among Pininfarina’s output over the last couple of years have been yacht interiors for Wally, and yacht exteriors for Princess, cabin concepts for Airbus, TVs for Sharp, a sports utility bicycle, an ice cube for Chivas, kitchens, cooking pots, jewellery, garden furniture and pens made out of an alloy that allows it to write endlessly without need for refill. It’s even designed the new panoramic train around the Swiss Alps.

Then there is the award-winning architecture: it’s designed the air traffic control tower at Istanbul Airport, and a residential tower in Brazil, among other projects. And it’s in the process of designing a resort for the Costa Del Sol.

“Architecture has really been the last important step in our diversification - and really to play a part in the design of a city is the pinnacle of work for a designer, to create something that may last for hundreds of years, that shapes the way we live,” explains Pininfarina.

“The idea has been to apply the aerodynamics of our cars to buildings, to give them the same softness and fluidity that I think is our signature. People in Sao Paolo make a point of going to look at the Pininfarina tower. To have created a landmark like that is just fantastic.”

It is, perhaps, also one more successful case study for the argument that Paolo Pininfarina first made some three decades ago. If his visionary grandfather led the way in building the relationship with Lancia, and his engineer father with Ferrari – both historic relationships, at least in car terms – then it was Paolo who pushed for the company to spread its creative wings.

Of course, it’s more satisfying to design a Ferrari than a cooking pot

It was a bold move, in part allowing the company to get back into the black after accruing huge debts and ceasing its own car production in 2011. Still saddled with huge debt, this led to the company’s acquisition at the end of 2015 by Indian IT and engineering conglomerate Tech Mahindra. Fortunately the deal still left Pininfarina with autonomy.

The shift from manufacturing to design has not been easy, Paolo Pininfarina concedes, but now it has the space and the financing to make a design focus really happen. And it’s happening fast. It’s already in the top five of Italy’s design companies by value of production, behind only design gods including the likes of Antonio Citterio and Renzo Piano.

“Of course, it’s more satisfying to design a Ferrari than a cooking pot,” laughs Pininfarina, who’s 61 and, somehow unexpectedly, plays drums in a prog rock band in his spare time.

“That said, there’s this glass water bottle I designed years ago which I see in restaurants every now and then, and I still feel that it makes the table look nicer. You get a different kind of satisfaction from designing a single masterpiece as opposed to something like that, produced in the millions. We want our design to touch as many people as possible even if, sure, it’s the masterpiece that inevitably gets all the attention.”

Certainly Pininfarina has not given up on cars – after all, there’s another Pininfarina/Ferrari project in the pipeline. But these days it looks in other directions – to China and its little-known makers SGM, Foton, Changfeng, JAC and Brilliance, and to Korea and Vietnam, which look to dominate high quality mass-market car production over the coming years.

It’s here where Pininfarina is doing much of its auto styling work. It’s at the Chinese maker Chery International that, this spring, Pininfarina found its first ever chief creative officer, the British car designer Kevin Rice. “My father would have liked that,” Paolo Pininfarina notes, “for the British understatement, curiosity, tradition and taste, so to have a Brit for our first CCO is OK.”

“It’s strange but a lot of people don’t know that Vietnam, for example, even makes cars. But it’s a huge business, catering to a market of millions of people, and a market that’s coming up,” Pininfarina adds.

“Pininfarina has always tried to be close to companies when they were, in effect, operating like start-ups. We worked with the likes of Nissan and Hyundai when they first got going. You get in early and provide a full service for them, everything from brand identity to office interior design. And the East is going to be the most prominent market for car manufacture in the near future.”

The company is also looking to shape a new world somewhat lacking the guttural rumbling of the high-powered combustion engine with which its history is so connected. It recently joined forces with Bosch and Benteler to develop its own electric-engined rolling chassis.

This year saw the unveiling of both its concept car design for Karma, a Californian luxury electric automaker, and of the Battista, an electric supercar from its in-house sustainable luxury car brand, Automobili Pininfarina, made largely possible by Mahindra’s money.

Pininfarina has now designed almost everything, or had a go

“We were one of the first design companies to really look at electric cars, back in 2007, which was actually too early for the market,” says Pininfarina. “The concept was mature but lacked the right technology. But the development of electric power is now moving so much faster, that clearly the future is electric.

“I think the virus this year has really driven home the environmental aspect of how we live – matters of population density, pollution and so on. The combustion engine will continue to be built, for particular, specialist use. It isn’t dead. Not yet anyway…”

After many decades as a champion for aesthetics – for the classical elegance that defines Italian style – Pininfarina is deftly becoming more a champion for the humanisation of technology and design needed not just today, but to ready us for our tomorrows. In years to come, the Pininfarina badge might just as well appear on the side of a space station as a supercar.

“Pininfarina has now designed almost everything, or had a go. It’s been a steep learning curve sometimes. We don’t ever just sit there thinking we’re the best in the world. But I’d still like to try designing space habitats. That would be a dream for me: to help make the living quarters for the people who will go to Mars,” says Paolo Pininfarina.

“A while ago I met some Italian astronauts who told me that design for space is all about reliability. It’s just about engineering. You have thousands of engineers working on these projects and maybe two designers. You want reliability, of course, but if you’re going to be living in space for six months you also need comfort, you need ergonomics. The fact is that these are homes for human beings in extreme conditions.

That would be a great project. Hopefully going to Mars will happen by the end of my professional career. And then I can retire.” 

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